Web Of Compassion

The Net can lend a helping hand during life's major transitions

Endings are hard. And so, sometimes, are beginnings. "You feel so alone. There is no script," says Gayle Groves, a California widow, describing how she felt after the sudden death of her husband. New mothers often say the same thing when their baby cries inconsolably in the middle of the night and no one--not their spouse or parents or the local pediatrician--can tell them how to calm the newborn.

Where to turn? Increasingly, people dealing with either the grief of death or the joy of birth are looking to the same place: the Internet. Besides providing tools to research virtually any aspect of birth or death, the Web offers new ways to find others facing similar transitions. Along the way, it's fostering the creation of new rituals of celebration and mourning. Some show off their newborn to relatives thousands of miles away in live Webcasts. Others send e-mail messages to their deceased loved ones. "The Internet has become the neighborhood," says Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families & Work Institute, a New York nonprofit research organization.

It's a neighborhood that just keeps growing. Cyberspace is becoming a mainstay of support. Parents can get advice from experts, commune with other new mothers and fathers, and shop for every kind of baby paraphernalia imaginable. Sure, Dr. Spock is still on the bookshelf. And the pediatrician's number is taped to the refrigerator door. But many new parents discover it's faster and easier to get what they need online--often searching the Net while they wait for a doctor to return their phone call. "The Web provides instant gratification," says Deirdre Wilson, managing editor of The Boston Parents' Paper.

For the bereaved, the Internet has become an unlikely new source of solace. It gives mourners forums for grief, with countless places to express sorrow and commemorate the dead. It offers novel ways for everyone to confront their mortality, ranging from writing wills to planning funerals to joining communities of terminally ill patients. A site called Making Everlasting Memories (mem.com), for example, will scan items such as birth certificates and artwork onto Web pages to create virtual memorials. And finalthoughts.com lets members write farewell letters to be e-mailed after they pass away.

The anonymity of the Net provides a comforting shield of privacy for mourners. And its around-the-clock availability lets people breach the taboo of death on their own terms, whenever they want. Spending time online can help grieving people "begin to realize they're not alone and they're not crazy," says David Abrams, president of the Hospice Foundation of America. It's "a big step on the road to recovery."

And it's getting to be a business. While there are many nonprofit sites dealing with birth and death, some commercial ones are attracting swarms of people. With about 1.8 million unique visitors a month, BabyCenter.com says it reaches nearly one-third of all pregnant women in the U.S. The company, now a subsidiary of ailing eToys Inc., generates most of its money from advertisers and its online baby store. But many sites are devising more innovative ways to make money. Legacy.com, which publishes elaborate obituaries online, charges $195 to post a person's life story for posterity, and $49 to keep a guest book online forever. The site, part owned by publisher Tribune Co., recently laid off half of its staff but says the cuts will help it become profitable. Finalthoughts.com, a comprehensive end-of-life site that offers interactive estate planning, is trying to position itself as an employee benefit for corporations. The company plans to start selling group subscriptions to employers in March, charging about $30 per employee per year. It expects the 15-month-old site to be profitable within nine months.

One of the most innovative newcomers is BabyPressConference.com. The site lets proud parents at more than 60 U.S. hospitals hold live Netcasts with their newborns, showing their babies off to friends and family members who live across town or around the globe. Since opening in March, the site has helped 2,300 couples introduce their babies, asking nothing for the Webcast but charging $30 for a CD-ROM recording of the event. Disappointed that she couldn't get off work to see her new granddaughter in a Chicago hospital, Patty Kuhn, of Anderson, Ind., got her first glimpse of baby Caroline Lockwood on the computer screen in her office. "It was very important that I could see her and that I knew she was O.K.," says Kuhn, who watched her son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughter with tears in her eyes. "This brought them close to home."

Many look to the Web for community long before their baby is born. Five months pregnant, Susan O'Connor had gone into early labor and was at such a high risk of premature delivery that doctors wouldn't let her take even a few steps to the bathroom. She spent her days lying on her side, worrying about the baby's survival. But she managed to ease her fears and loneliness with the constant companion she kept in her bed: her computer. With her husband and friends busy at work, she relied on her online correspondents--mostly other pregnant women--to help her resist the temptation to sit up. She became so close to these people she had never met that many sent gifts for a virtual baby shower. One woman even made her a quilt. "It was the most touching thing in the world," she says, crediting her new friends with giving her the strength to follow doctors' orders and deliver a healthy child. "He is my miracle baby, and the people online were the angels that helped give him to me."

Even women with less troubled pregnancies find the Net can be a lifesaver--literally. Consider the case of one woman who read a BabyCenter newsletter about amniocentesis just after having the procedure. The 35-year-old woman, who asked that her name not be used, was stunned to learn that because she had Rh negative blood while her husband was Rh positive, she needed a special shot--something her doctor had never told her. If she didn't get the medication within 72 hours, her fetus would be at serious risk. She called her doctor, who discovered the office had recorded her blood type incorrectly. "All I kept thinking when I was driving to the doctor's office was `Thank God for the Internet!"' she wrote in a note to BabyCenter.

Vicky Edwards was introduced to the Internet at the other end of the life spectrum--and also viewed it as a salvation. When her 18-year-old son, Shane, died of alcohol poisoning last August, she didn't just turn to friends and family for support. She also bought a computer to help herself grieve. Why the PC? The funeral home had paid for a memorial to Shane on legacy.com, and she wanted to read the online tributes to him. She wrote the teenager's life story for the site months ago, but she still checks in almost every day. Often, there are new entries in the guest book, including letters from strangers who recently endured a child's death. "Know that others care even if we don't know you personally," wrote Linda McIntyre, of Calhoun, Ga., after describing the "unreal" pain of losing her brother.

That kind of contact wasn't exactly what the site's designers intended, but it's an example of the new rituals that the Internet is helping to create. Legacy.com's online guest books were planned as a place where far-flung friends and relatives could send notes of condolence. These books also have become meeting places where bereaved strangers connect and share their tragedies. Vicky Edwards often scans the latest obituary postings, looking for child deaths, and then writes notes to grieving parents about her son. ""You feel like you're helping others," she says. "It's like a little ministry."

Many mourners find online sympathy cards more comforting than those they receive in the mail. Paula Trobridge, 33, of Greenville, Wisc., says most of the mailed condolences she got after her husband died last summer had little more than a signature. Online, she says, people write long notes she'll cherish forever. Trobridge continues to e-mail her husband, too, even though she knows he can't read her messages. Such behavior is really just a high-tech twist on a traditional method of mourning. Therapists often recommend that the bereaved write a letter to the dead or keep a journal of their feelings.

People with terminal illnesses find similar succor online. Those with esophageal cancer gained comfort from Bill Bartholome, a medical ethicist who was diagnosed with the disease. He became known as "Dr. Bill" on a Web site called Cathy's Esophageal Cancer Cafe, and his postings were so popular that the cafe still keeps them on the site, even though he died more than a year ago.

The Net also can help those clinging to life in other ways. One 30-year-old woman joined finalthoughts.com to write a farewell letter that would be sent to her 4-year-old son after she killed herself. But writing the letter gave her a new will to live. "What do I say? Something like, `Mommy couldn't take it anymore, and I couldn't deal with what life was dealing?"' she wrote in a thank-you letter to finalthoughts.

Such success notwithstanding, the Web rarely replaces counseling altogether. Gayle Groves, the California widow, became distraught after her husband died of a sudden heart attack because she had no idea how he wanted to deal with his burial. Vowing never to similarly burden her children, she joined finalthoughts, leaving her last wishes in a computer file on the site. While the site has helped her work through her loss, Groves realized that the Net was not enough. She needed the immediate feedback of face-to-face counseling, a relationship with a therapist "where I could totally fall apart."

Still, for some, the Net can fill a vital role--on par with therapy or even religion. Kimberly Grimme had the misfortune of looking to both birth and death Web sites in quick succession. One of her twins was stillborn. She found women who had suffered similar losses, and credits them with helping her bond with the surviving child while still mourning her other baby's death. "The computer used to be for entertainment," she says. "Now, it's for nothing but support. It has become my lifeline." Like many others in cyberspace, her grief had become more manageable because she could find community online.

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